Insomnia matters, part 1

It’s far into the night, but sleep won’t come. You turn over. Perhaps a different position will quieten the mind. Or maybe the other side was better after all. Panic sets in. Not sleeping is a disaster.

For very understandable reasons our culture has arrived at extremely negative assessments of insomnia. It is a curse, to be overcome by art or science, by a sleeping pill, chamomile tea or sheep counting.

© Getty

© Getty

Being unable to sleep night after night, for weeks on end, is – of course – hell. But in smaller doses, insomnia does not need a cure. Occasional sleeplessness is an asset, a help with some key troubles of the soul. Crucial things we need may only get a chance to happen during a few active hours in the middle of the night. We should revise our assessment of sleeplessness.


Out of bed in the middle of the night … raising the prestige of not being able to sleep

The Danish painter Kersting hints at the virtues of the sleepless state. We can guess it’s very late; more conventional people have long ago turned in, but the man has stayed up, to read, to think, to talk with a long-forgotten person: himself. Late at night is when big things may at last have a chance to happen in the mind. Like all the most interesting artists, Kersting is trying to make what really matters glamorous.

Norman Rockwell, Christmas Homecoming, 1948

Norman Rockwell, Christmas Homecoming, 1948

During the day you will need to be who they want you to be

During the day, we are dutiful to others. At night we return to a bigger duty: to ourselves. Night is a corrective to the demands of the community.

I may be a dentist or a maths teacher but, long before that happened and still now when I am allowed to commune with myself, I am simply a nameless, limitless consciousness, a far more expansive, un-anchored figure, of infinite possibilities and rare, disturbing, ambivalent, peculiar, visionary insights.

The thoughts of night would sound weird to my mother, my friend, my boss, my child. These people need us to be a certain way. They cannot tolerate all our possibilities and for some good reasons. We don’t want to let them down; they have a right to benefit from our predictability. But their expectations shape us, make us who we are, and choke off important aspects.

However, at night, with the window open and a clear sky above, it is just us and the universe – and for a time, we can take on a little of its boundlessness.

Caspar David Friedrich, Woman before the Rising Sun, 1818

Caspar David Friedrich, Woman before the Rising Sun, 1818

5 a.m. Free, until the first person she knows wakes up…

We don’t only suffer from spending insufficient time with our true deep selves. We also suffer because we are presented only with the daytime version of other people.

We need to have a lot more portraits of what people are like when they are alone, in the dim hours, and their heads are filled with odd (but so normal) thoughts. At two in the morning, the CEO thinks the company is futile – and yet she remains a good CEO. A mother thinks about walking out of her marriage and her family – and yet she will stay and no one need know. A successful novelist wishes he’d never started writing, feels everything he has done is pitiful. And yet he remains an insightful, consoling wordsmith. We need to know that people who are competent, capable and decent will also have (in the privacy of the night) thoughts which are deeply contrary to who we imagine them to be.  Far from being disconcerting, this is properly consoling; a corrective to our debilitating sense of isolation and private madness.

It’s often been assumed that if you draw off the social pressure to be decent and responsible, monstrous parts of the self will emerge.


Goya: when we let go of our public identity we are revealed as monsters of selfishness and cruelty

Yet, social pressure is perhaps also keeping back sweet and delicate aspects of ourselves. We keep them under wraps during the day not because they are so awful, but because they are so liable to be misunderstood.

Late at night is when the bully recognises that he is cruel from anger and disappointment and that deep down, he is lonely and ashamed. A readiness to admit weakness, error and confusion, a readiness to be ashamed and to be sorry – these are not qualities encouraged by the bright, defensive brittleness of day. Only at night, without fear of consequence or humiliation, we start to regrow the more delicate aspects of our natures.

We are naturally very inclined to want to be normal. Yet thanks to insomnia, we are granted a crucial encounter with our weirder, truer selves. We can learn of our own apparent strangeness. The daytime self is a misleading picture of what everyone is like. Insomnia is a gift – and a latent education.

Moonrise Over the Sea, Caspar David Friedrich, 1822

Moonrise Over the Sea, Caspar David Friedrich, 1822

We can be rather strange and lonely – together